Democrats hopeful in special election for Santos’s House seat

Democrats are hoping to take back former Rep. George Santos’s (R) House seat in a special election next month — even if Santos isn’t there to defend it.

The party has turned to a well-known face in former Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-N.Y.) to run in the district, and while the party probably had a better chance to win the seat back from Republicans with the scandal-marred Santos running, Democrats still like their chances.

How Democrats fare in the Feb. 13 contest could signal how strong the party will be in the fall, when its efforts to flip the lower chamber hinge largely on New York.

“In Tom Suozzi, Democrats have someone who is extremely well-known, highly respected and has sky-high name recognition in the district he has represented, close to all of it, for years,” said New York Democratic strategist Jon Reinish.

New York’s 3rd Congressional District, which Suozzi represented for six years, has likely been on Democrats’ radar to take back since Santos was elected to the seat in 2022. The district, located on the western side of Long Island, is one of 18 districts nationwide with Republican representatives that would have voted for President Biden in the 2020 presidential election under its current lines.

This made Santos’s victory in 2022 a bit of an upset when he won by 7 points. Suozzi had decided not to run for reelection to his House seat and instead seek the Democratic nomination for governor, which he lost to the eventual winner, Gov. Kathy Hochul (D).

Several of the Biden-district Republicans represent districts in New York, setting the state up to be key to either party winning the House in November.

Santos was quickly embroiled in controversy before he took office following numerous reports he had made false claims about much of his personal, educational and professional background. He was indicted on a range of charges, including wire fraud and money laundering, and eventually expelled from his seat last month after an investigation by the House Ethics Committee.

Santos was defiant against calls for his resignation for months and initially planned to run for reelection to his seat. Given his widespread unpopularity with members of both parties, Democrats likely would have had the advantage with Santos as the Republican nominee again in 2024.

The Cook Political Report had rated the race as “lean Democrat” for months, but with Santos out, Cook and other nonpartisan election analyzers consider the race a “toss-up.”

But Democrats say they still have an advantage with the match-up of Suozzi against Republican Mazi Melesa Pilip, a Nassau County legislator who has been a registered Democrat. They argue that even though it’s a swing district, the party has an advantage in numbers given Biden’s win there in 2020.

Democrats also said national Republicans not calling for Santos to resign for months tarnished their reputation in the district.

New York Democratic strategist Basil Smikle said he believes the district was “significantly concerned” about the negative attention that Santos brought to himself and is eager to move on from it. The other three districts that make up Long Island are all represented by Republicans, but he said the 3rd District has “strong” Democratic representation and Suozzi was a well-regarded member.

But Smikle noted that polls showed members of both parties overwhelmingly wanted Santos to resign, so a stronger campaign message for Democrats would be to focus on policy issues that suburban voters care about rather than Santos himself.

“I do think that the voters will look not just at the special election but beyond that,” he said, noting that the seat will be up for election again in November along with all other races throughout the country.

National Democrats have gone on the attack after Pilip since she was chosen as the GOP nominee, seeking to tie her to an extreme wing of the Republican Party. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee argued in an ad this month that Pilip was “hand-picked” by “MAGA Republicans” in the House.

Another ad released Wednesday accuses her of dodging questions about Republicans’ “extreme” agenda of banning abortion and making cuts to Social Security.

Democrats argued Pilip’s candidacy gives them an advantage based on her campaign tactics and the controversy surrounding her financial disclosures.

Suozzi’s campaign has attacked Pilip for avoiding candidate forums and debates and a lack of public campaign appearances. Gothamist reported on Wednesday that Pilip has largely kept her schedule private and has mostly appeared at events with GOP officials instead of Suozzi or undecided voters.

“While Mazi Pilip and her extreme Republican Party bosses will be held accountable for their shameless record of not being forthright with voters, the DCCC is committed to doing everything possible to get the word out about Tom Suozzi’s long record of working with anyone to deliver for Nassau and Queens,” DCCC spokesperson Ellie Dougherty said.

The New York Times has also reported on financial disclosures Pilip filed and needed to amend following questions that were raised about missing and unclear information.

Democrats said that especially in the aftermath of Santos, voters are seeking transparency, which they have not received from Pilip.

Pilip has a 10-point plan on her campaign website outlining what she would do in Congress, including pushing for tax cuts for the middle class and getting “tough” on crime. It also notes she does not support a national abortion ban.

Brian Devine, the communications director for the campaign, said Pilip is on the “right side of issues that voters care about,” like securing the border, supporting the police and fixing the economy. He said Suozzi has supported President Biden’s agenda, which he argued led to the crisis at the border.

“The voters of CD-3 have long memories and will see through Tom Suozzi’s attempts to rewrite history to paint himself as a moderate. Come election day, Mazi will enjoy a resounding victory,” he said.

National Republicans have meanwhile gone after Suozzi with attacks over his immigration voting record, branding him a “radical” in an ad released Wednesday.

The National Republican Campaign Committee said Pilip is a “formidable” candidate who is “all in” to win the seat.

“The NRCC is honored to work hand-in-glove with her and her campaign, the local County Parties, and the NYGOP to ensure we stop Joe Biden and Tom Suozzi’s agenda of open borders, rising crime and painful inflation,” said spokesperson Savannah Viar.

New York-based Republican strategist Tom Doherty said he expects the race will receive significant national attention, ensuring neither candidate has issues with raising enough money. He said both candidates will likely want to avoid tying themselves to their party leaders, Biden and former President Trump, because of their widespread unpopularity.

Pilip has appeared to be trying to distance herself from Trump, declining on multiple occasions to say who she voted for in 2020.

Doherty also expressed doubts about the effectiveness of attacking Pilip as a “MAGA” extremist.

“Sometimes people get a little bit exhausted by that because they’re smart enough to recognize that we were voting for her, or we’re voting for him. We’re not voting for Joe Biden or Donald Trump, etc. We’re voting for these two individuals,” Doherty said.

Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf said he sees the race as a true toss-up that “should” be won by the Republicans but won’t because of Suozzi himself. He said Suozzi’s positions as a moderate in a moderate-leaning district make him the only Democrat who can win, noting that Democrats have lost key races in New York to Republicans recently.

“So if this breaks the spell … this will be a big deal for the Democrats,” Sheinkopf said.

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